Obama seeks to repair rift with Republicans on immigration reform

President Obama reached out to key Senate Republicans on Tuesday in an effort to smooth the waters over immigration reform.

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Obama placed calls to Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) Tuesday afternoon after the Republican senators accused the White House of undermining bipartisan negotiations in the Senate with the weekend release of the administration’s own immigration bill.

According to White House press secretary Jay Carney, Obama told the senators “that he remains supportive of the effort underway in Congress, and that he hopes that they can produce a bill as soon as possible that reflects shared core principles” of immigration reform.

“He thanked the Senators for their leadership, and made clear that he and his staff look forward to continuing to work together with their teams to achieve needed reform,” Carney added in a statement.

The president’s outreach came after last weekend’s leak of draft White House legislation depicting the administration’s preferred immigration reform package.

That bill did not tie a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants to new border security measures and did not create a new visa exit system — two provisions Republicans have insisted on in negotiations.

Republican leaders said the release undercut Senate negotiations and threatened to politicize the reform effort.

“If actually proposed, the president’s bill would be dead on arrival in Congress, leaving us with unsecured borders and a broken legal immigration system for years to come,” Rubio said in a statement.

Republicans also accused the White House of barreling forward on immigration without seeking input from across the aisle.

In a statement released earlier Tuesday, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said that no one in the Florida lawmaker’s office had ever been contacted by the White House to discuss immigration policy.

“President Obama and the White House staff are not working with Republicans on immigration reform. Senator Rubio’s office has never discussed immigration policy with anyone in the White House,” Conant said.

The White House immediately pushed back on that assertion, with a senior administration official citing at least five instances in which White House officials had met with representatives from a bipartisan group of Senate negotiators.

Conant returned fire, saying that while Rubio’s staff had been briefed on administration efforts on behalf of a reform package, their suggestions had never been solicited.

Republican support for the immigration package is thought largely to hinge on Rubio, and the phone calls Tuesday appeared to be an effort by the White House to repair relations.

The gesture seemed to have paid off, with spokesmen for the Republican senators issuing optimistic statements following the phone calls.

“Senator Rubio appreciated receiving President Obama’s phone call to discuss immigration reform late tonight in Jerusalem,” Conant said. Rubio was traveling Tuesday in Israel.  

“The Senator told the President that he feels good about the ongoing negotiations in the Senate, and is hopeful the final product is something that can pass the Senate with strong bipartisan support.”

A spokesman for Graham called the call “short” and “cordial,” but said the South Carolina lawmaker and Obama agreed “it is important we fix our broken immigration system.”

A senior Democratic congressional aide close to the bipartisan immigration talks downplayed the criticism from Rubio and other Republicans about the leaked White House bill.

The aide suggested it was all part of the complicated political dance that must take place to keep both liberals and conservatives at the table on immigration reform.

“I don’t think it hurts the process at all,” the aide said. “It shows the president is serious, and he’s not going to wait forever for Congress to act.”

The White House in recent weeks has made a public show of demonstrating that it has learned the lessons of its fight for healthcare reform in 2009. Then, Obama faced criticism for allowing bipartisan Senate talks to drag on for too long, wasting political momentum and allowing opposition to escalate into a firestorm.

Now, the White House has offered repeated public reminders that it is prepared to submit its own bill if Congress dawdles, and the leak of parts of it over the weekend could serve as a spur for that process.

“I wouldn’t say we were surprised” by the leak, the Democratic aide said.

The aide did voice regret that the published proposal did not encompass the entirety of the principles Obama has laid out on immigration reform, which include enhancements to border security and reforms to the legal immigration system.

“It’s unfortunate that only a piece of it was leaked out,” the aide said.

Janet Murguía, head of the National Council of La Raza, an Hispanic civil-rights group, said there’s “some legitimacy” to Rubio’s criticisms of Obama. But she was quick to add that it’s also “legitimate and appropriate” for the president to remind lawmakers that he’ll push his own reforms if Congress fails to reach a deal on its own. 

She characterized the partisan barbs as “healthy tensions” that put pressure on both sides to secure comprehensive reforms this year.

“Both appear committed,” she said.

Mike Lillis and Russell Berman contributed.